“Racing Against Time:” Running on Empty?

“This post is a contribution to Honda’s “Racing Against Time” thought leadership series. Peak Oil Blues was selected to provide a unique perspective on how we should approach the discussion of oil as a finite energy source. During the first week of October 2010, five individuals provide their own thoughts on the subject. These independent contributors were not compensated for their participation and as such their views are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Honda. Details and links to what others are saying about “Racing Against Time” can be found at www.facebook.com/honda.


Welcome, Honda Motor visitors.

I’m delighted to participate in this conversation. I’m a clinical psychologist, got my doctoral degree 22 years ago, and I’ve been reading and answering letters from people who have learned about Peak Oil, started feeling crazy, and needed to talk to somebody who “got it.” So they write to me. Feel free to read the letters I’ve received over the past four and a half years.

There is only one reason to consider the terrifying implications of an oil depleted future: ­­­­­­It gives you more options. If you could know, with 100% certainty, that you would lose your job in nine months, wouldn’t you want to know? Of course you would. You might say “Let’s reconsider taking on more debt” or “Let’s not move.” You might grab all the overtime you can. Knowing things ahead of time, even bad things, gives you options, and allows you to make better decisions about how you will live your life today. That’s the only reason to listen to what I’m about to tell you, and to at least check it out.

Don’t take my word for it. Do your own research.

I’ve learned a lot about what researching this bad news does to people, emotionally—even people who don’t usually get upset easily—like ‘gear heads,’ engineers, oil geologists and scientists. Even ‘techno-fixers.’ These are folks who don’t accept people saying: “there is nothing you can do about it.” That’s not even true. Of course there is.

But everyone is helpless if they are ignorant. And trust me, you don’t want to be left in the dark about Peak Oil, because it is going to dramatically change the way you live over the next 10-20 years. Maybe even five years. Maybe less than two.

“By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day,” says the report, which has a foreword by a senior commander, General James N Mattis.”

The steady flow of affordable oil is the life blood of this culture. Look around you: 95% of everything you see comes from oil, even things you don’t think about, like food and plastics.


Yep. Food doesn’t come from a supermarket, it comes from agri-business farms that require fossil fuels for fertilizers, farming equipment, trucks, cold storage, heat and utilities. Have you noticed that food prices are rising? That’s just the start of it. And your commuting costs will rise, too.

I know you have enough to worry about right now, trying to keep your job or find a new one, keep your kids fed and clothed…that kind of thing. I get it.

I’m a ‘shrink.’ I talk to people every day about the stresses they face, and how overwhelmed they feel. But if you let this really sink in, you are going to make better decisions about your future. It is really important stuff that will change your life plans. And this is a dilemma, not a problem. A problem has answers, but a dilemma is complex, and any way you move, it causes difficulties–between a rock and a hard place.

First, the good news: eventually, we’ll find ways to adapt. Life without a steady supply of oil will mean we’ll have to scale down, live more locally, and live more simply. “One thing” won’t replace oil, because nothing is as energy-dense, or packs the punch of oil. Just a tank-full of gas gets you, what, 350-400 miles? That’s powerful stuff. And it’s so fabulous, so versatile, used for making so many really important things like live-saving medical equipment and even medicine, that we couldn’t even go ten days without it. If we did, countries would crash and burn spectacularly.

How do I know this?

Empty Highways
Barcelona, Spain
September 2000

Because it happened in September of 2000. A bunch of angry French fishermen blocked the path oil tankers use to deliver fuel and starved Europe of oil for 9 days. Only 9 days. They weren’t terrorists; they were just ticked off about having to pay high oil prices and wanted the French government to lower their fuel taxes. Countries like Belgium, Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Poland, and Greece saw widespread protests. They were playing tennis on the empty streets of Belgium! One doctor in England planned to visit on horseback! Wild stuff!

So governments said: “Please guys, you’re killing our economy. Stop it,” and they did. The American media ignored the story, because it was such a popular revolt. Why risk a protest like that spreading in the USA? Read the full story here.

As gasoline becomes increasingly expensive, and we hit actual periods of shortage here in the US, our gas stations are going to have trouble staying open. Forget vacation travel, without a reliable supply of fossil fuel, transporting essential commodities by air won’t be possible and relying on “just-in-time delivery,” will be business suicide.

We need a twenty year lead time that we don’t have. We are going to see big changes much sooner than that. They’ll be innovations to soften the impact–many things, in fact– but none will “make it all better” or keep us living exactly like we do right now.

When I learned about Peak Oil five years ago, I found it hard to believe. Looking into it, I found facts and figures on one side that told me this was real, and a lot of wishful thinking on the other side saying it wasn’t. I looked for credible skeptics, but couldn’t find any.

Later, I read about the US, British, and German military concerns about oil depletion, and I knew these ‘worried warriors’ weren’t “chicken little” types.

A funny thing happened when I really started to get that we aren’t going to be able to have a steady stream of cheap oil indefinitely: I started to really appreciate how easy I had it, compared to people a hundred years ago. I could flick a switch and have clean, bright, odorless light. I could “prepare” for winter by turning on the heat and putting on the snow tires. I could eat strawberries in January, and keep meat frozen in my freezer for months.

I love my car and not just for practical reasons. I can go where I want, when I want. I can get into a beautiful, smooth-riding car and go for a joy ride. Get it? A Joy Ride. Nobody likes commuting, but in my neighborhood, Autumn is when people love to drive around aimlessly gazing at gorgeous foliage.

As a teenager, I adored my boyfriend’s sports car, riding with a group of my friends, blasting our music, and speeding down the highway at full throttle. I never wanted it to end. I still don’t.

Many of us like the privacy and isolation of being alone in our cars. We sing in our cars; we grieve in our cars. We’re going to have to find a better way to do those things.

I drive around in a two-ton box, where 5% of the gas carries me, and 95% carries the box.

That makes no sense.

I’m looking into a very different future, whether I like it or not.

Wonder why a car company asked me to talk to you? A psychologist? Because they know they’re in a tough spot and that means we’re in a tough spot. We love our cars, and they love their business. But without cheap, available oil, more than just what we drive is going to have to radically change.

Throughout history, we traveled, on average, thirty-minutes from home. What has changed is how fast we now travel. Ninety-percent of our daily trips are still just thirty-minutes from home, but we now go 20-30 miles. We’ve given up on public transportation and high-speed rail in this country. We’ve given up on walking and biking. Kids don’t walk or bike like they used to. Back in the 1960′s, school children walked a mile to school, but today, only 31% of school children walk that distance. We need to re-localize our communities, but it will require a lot of time, money, sacrifice, and a lot of fossil fuel. We’re limited in time, money and oil, and we’ve lost any sense that a willingness to sacrifice is honorable.

We’ll need to revive long-abandoned social virtues, such as “Pietas”–­­­­­­­a duty or devotion to the greater good; “Gravitas”–a dignity and seriousness in pursuit of that duty; and we’ll need governmental, corporate, and community leaders who embody “Dignitas,” a personal reputation, moral standing, and ethical worth which entitles them to our respect.

It’s not just about driving; it’s about driving cultural values.

We were warned that the energy crisis was “the moral equivalent of war.” Back then, the world was consuming 60 million barrels a day. Now we use 84. It’s a war for our very survival. To quote the Talking Heads:

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”

It took decades to ramp up the petroleum age and we squandered the decades we needed to ramp back down. We’re in an emergency situation. A third of a century ago, we refused to engage in serious conversations. We can’t avoid it anymore. We refused to deal with reality and now reality is dealing with us.

I understand that for over thirty years, nobody has told you how serious Peak Oil is. But now someone has. After you recover from the shock, it is time to begin a conversation in your own comm­unity.

Thank you. Does anybody have any questions?


If you don’t know what Peak Oil is, the video below is a quick, easy to understand and funny explanation, from the website for the newly released movie How to Boil a Frog:


Kathy McMahon, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist, practices marital and family therapy, and is also a certified sex therapist and educator. She teaches graduate school, maintains a small clinical and online practice, and supervises doctoral psychology interns in an urban social service agency for the poor. She also raises chickens. Dr. McMahon is active in her local community’s efforts to eradicate hunger and power-down to a low-energy future. Despite being pessimistic about the future of cheap energy she’s very hopeful about the power of small groups of people creating a simpler but more meaningful life together, while simultaneously annoying each other in the process. She has been quoted as saying “If I can’t dance, I don’t want the Armageddon.” She’s launching a Pacific Northwest speaking tour this week, entitled:

“How to Stay Sane as the World Goes Crazy: Economic Hard Tim­es, Climate Change and the Messy Issues of Oil”

(see right panel for details) and will be visiting many Transition USA locations.

The goal of Peak Oil Blues is to provide a place where people can reflect on the emotional impact of dramatic economic and cultural upheaval in a time of political uncertainty, and to sort out what is “mental preparation” from what is just “acting mental.” Dr. McMahon educates mental health professionals about common, predictable patterns of stress seen in those becoming aware of these issues and urges normalizing, not pathologizing, these patterns.

She can be reached at Peak Shrink AT Peak Oil Blues DOT com.